Dorthe Nors Spends the Shortest Night of the Year on Denmark’s North Sea Coast
"Even here, where nature is harshest, it’s soft."
Midsummer. The pace of growth can’t keep this up. The corn is turning from green to golden, and everything draws energy from the sun. Today is the longest day. The shortest night lies ahead.
I walked in the heat from the rented cabin on the top of Skallerup Dune, around forty miles south of the northernmost tip of the country, down to the water, amid the scent of rosehips, Rosa rugosa, sweetbriar roses, dog roses, roses everywhere. The soil is fat and damp. Yellow water lilies grow in the hollows. Sediment deposited in the Ice Age continues all the way down to the water’s edge; the dunes have verdant skin. On the beach, there are preparations for a Midsummer’s Eve bonfire. Some children, it must have been, have made a witch with stiff broomstick arms and a wild look in her felt-tip eyes.
It’s the time of year when we burn a female doll. It’s a tradition, an annual thing in Denmark, an act that has clicked into place. We Danes are more or less in agreement: all of this is a game we play. Burning the evil has its roots in ancient rituals and seventeenth century witches at the stake—we can agree on that too. But it’s only in the past century that the ritual has come into fashion, and whether it’s a cosy custom or a problem is something to be discussed over strawberries picked for the celebration. She will be burned.
Tonight, as legend tells, she will fly to Brocken and Hekla: dispatched like sparks above a bonfire, she and her sister witches will celebrate their sabbath on the mountains there. It’s a Midsummer’s Eve party: a celebration of cleansing and the solstice. The light is here, but the darkness is as well, and now the great wheel turns. We walk to the holy springs and wash our wounds. Herbs in the woods and meadows have drunk from the energies of the universe and drawn rich growth from all existence.
We pick the herbs at night, on our guard against the glowworms’ bite. We read omens. We tuck flowers under our pillows. Our brown calves are wet with cuckoo spit, while the bonfires burn down. It is the longest day, the magic’s night. Everything has opened and yielded. A rattling door onto the darkness. We burn a female doll in that opening, and I’ve never felt much like taking part.
When I was a child, a man caught fire at a Midsummer celebration my family was attending. It was the host. He’d built the witch himself the day before, out of a couple of brooms tied crosswise. He had doused the bonfire liberally with petrol that afternoon, but before the burning, he thought it could do with one more drop. I saw the thing myself—him running around in his nylon shirt with a jerrycan, sloshing petrol onto the fire.
We saw, too, the lighter, the spark, the catching, and how someone flung themselves on top of him to extinguish the flames. They rolled him around on the ground and crouched beside him on their haunches as the bonfire burned. It was such a silent, mild night. We could follow the sound of the ambulance all the way from the hospital in the city to far out in the countryside, where we stood, and where the party was over.
It seems impossible to think that this landscape will strike back with savage force in autumn, and that the trees will again be pressed against the earth. That the people now striding straight as rods will need to walk sideways before long. The salt will settle over the beach meadows and on the windows, which will need to be washed again and again. Everything is clear and tender around Midsummer’s Eve, and now even here, where nature is harshest, it’s soft. Soft and thriftless, I thought, as I stood on the beach and watched a naked Norwegian trying to put on his underpants without falling over. His wife didn’t want to come out of the water; his dog had run away. To the south, Rubjerg Knude, a grand ridge of sand; to the north, Hirtshals Lighthouse. Longing for shadow, I went back to the cabin. Then I drove a little way north to Tornby, an area of dunes and scrub and trees, bringing a packed lunch.
Up there the woods were full of honeysuckle, tiny springs with water lilies, ferns, sparrow vetch and wood sorrel. Brown tracks bored into green tunnels. Somewhere among the trees I stood silently for a long time, watching a deer with a fawn. She was grazing, the mother, the little one following. I’m in the way here, I thought, and sat down on a rotten stump with my packed lunch, wood ants scurrying beneath me. Above, the intense hum of insects in the treetops. A lone bumblebee that had forgotten it could fly crawled across the forest path. I’m a foreign body, I thought.
I tower above their world. My view from up here is absurd. The only point of me for the forest would be if I dropped dead on the spot and gave the little creatures a good meal. But this was the longest day, and I walked alive through the woods. I trod carefully. I watched the flowers on the elder trees hover like small helicopters in the dim light, and let myself be drugged by the scent of honeysuckle. Maybe I stole a water lily, maybe a buttercup, and by the time I reached the soft dunes the ragworts were ready, the ticks, the mallow. I took plenty of blood-red cranesbill for myself and crouched by a toad that was resting on a stone. Then home to the cabin on the hillock above Skallerup Dune.
The sun is sinking stoically, now, towards the Norway boat. The ferry, on its way into the harbour in Hirtshals, is balanced heavily on the horizon. They’ll be on the deck, watching the coast—the visitors, the homecomers. It’s the bonfires they can see, the flames and the lighthouse. There are columns of smoke above the whole country, as though the Danes were busy sending signals, communicating from hilltops, sports fields and allotments. And if anyone aboard a ship in the strait of Skagerrak between Denmark and Norway leans over the gunwale and listens hard, they’ll hear folk singing.
Yes, in this country we sing in the dusk about peace, “Sankte Hans, Sankte Hans.” I’m on high ground, listening to the voices rising from the beach. They’ve lit the bonfire, and the sun has gone nuts too. I hum my own scraps of melody, as the bonfire burns out below. Then a deer crosses the meadow west of the cabin. Then a fox screams. Then the wheel turns, and to the north, the lighthouse blinks at the ferry.This is the shortest night, and amid the heavy, fertile crops, witches and beach mums creep around in the vegetation.
It casts light onto whatever needs to find its way, the lighthouse. I know, because yesterday in broad daylight it shone a light onto me. Hirtshals Lighthouse is white and stately. Beautiful on the soft green cliffs, a fraction north of Skallerup Dune. Everything was infinitely beautiful seen from up there, the green dunes, the turquoise sea. And I could look down on the straight streets of Hirtshals from above. I could see the harbour, where the ferries sail to Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. I could see a campsite. The weather was fine and I could make out a little group of bathers in the distance. Definitely beach mums, I thought.
When I was a child, we usually went swimming on what they called “housewife beaches,” places where the local mothers and grandmothers brought their children because they were safe to swim. The young girls stand at an appropriate distance, clad in new bikinis, gold crosses and their mothers’ dialects. A sharp watch is kept on the oldest women. Their skin is tanned leather, their hair clipped short. They have tattoos and big, wrinkled cleavages. They can call a child to their side from the open sea.
Now and again, a man in a boiler suit walks past and talks to them. They put up with that, but he can’t sit down. They’ve been skinning fish since before they started school. They’ve ridden Puch Maxi mopeds, they’ve gone cruising with drunken men in Ford Taunus cars by the dam. They’ve cooked more chips than you’ll ever eat. They’ve borne their stormy nights. They have cried when he was at sea, and they’ve cried when he was home, and they’re not for delicate souls. But they are safe swimmers, and if war breaks out, I’d like one of them in my trench. Her and her grandma. They’ve hauled men’s mouths over to the drain in the bathroom. When he couldn’t get up, they let him lie. When he wanted to stand, they carried him. Fat, thin, sun-creased, cigarette-smoking, bathing-suit-stretching beauties in the sand. Always swim near them, because the water is theirs.
I explored the view around the lighthouse. Out there was the strait of Skagerrak, turquoise blue and mighty. Around the beacon, bored into damp ice-age cliff: the Tenth Battery. Seventy Regelbau bunkers built by the Germans as part of the Atlantic Wall. Small signs have been affixed to the lighthouse railings, providing distances and directions to various places. From where I stood, it was 82 miles to Kristiansand in Norway. It was hard to get my head around it not being further than that. When I was a child, we often sailed from Hirtshals to Kristiansand in the summer. I thought it took forever.
We’d be up at three in the morning to drive north through Jutland. Anticipation in my belly, the duvet on the back seat of the Morris Monaco, my big brothers still asleep and my mum and dad chatting in the front. We were going to cross the sea and drive far up into Norway. On the other side of the water: mountains and eternal snow. It was the late 1970s, and we were going on an adventure.
But one time one of my brothers wandered away from the car as we were queueing for the ferry. I remembered that, standing at the top of the lighthouse. He only wanted to get out and take a quick look at the sea, my brother, but what if he didn’t make it back to the car in time? What if he was stranded forever in Hirtshals? It made me feel nauseated. I wanted to go looking for him, but at harbours there are quays with edges: they mark the place where solid ground beneath your feet gives way to unfathomable depths. So I couldn’t leave the car, and couldn’t leave my brother. Such a dilemma, at that harbour: losing either my footing or my brother. But he came back, of course. We sat in the back seat as my dad drove us aboard. All attempts to show how pleased I was to see him were met with an elbow in the ribs.
The power of place. You came here once with all you had, left it and travelled on. And so it is filled with fragments of memory. They flicker, the fragments. They rise like dust in long unaired rooms. In these rooms, I move abruptly, unexpectedly. My movements make the particles rise. They dance in the light, my place-bound memories. Only for a moment, etched briefly in my mind. Most of them never to be grasped again.
So this is what this project will be like, I think, as the silence whistles softly in the lighthouse. Somewhere there’s a door leading to an archive of moments that have escaped us. No matter where you linger, you must orient yourself among the records or avoid them, I thought, walking down from the tower.
Sitting with the woman in the lighthouse keeper’s cabin, I jotted down in my notebook over a cup of coffee that the Danish part of the coastline has eight big lighthouses. In Danish, this particular type of lighthouse is called an anduvningsfyr. The word anduve, meaning to approach the coast, comes from the Dutch verb aandoen, to sail within sight of shore, to approach from the open sea. These lighthouses are usually tall and powerful, with rotating beacons, and apart from telling people where they are along the line, they guide seafarers into the harbour. “I’m not scared,” I scribbled.
Now the Norway boat has sighted the beacon, and we light bonfires as we wait for the dark. “Sankte Hans, Sankte Hans,” sings the country. Tonight we burn those whose instincts don’t conform, but we are civilized now and set fire only to symbols. Cover your child’s eyes, for now the flames have caught, and the passengers out on the ferry rest their arms on the railing, looking forward to the holiday or to seeing people back home. They watch the sparks fly, the lighthouse flash. This is the shortest night, and amid the heavy, fertile crops, witches and beach mums creep around in the vegetation. They’re gathering herbs for the winter. They’re casting runes and searching for signs and counsel in the setting sun. I draw the sun’s rays down with me. To travel is to remember. Then the elderflowers light up. Then the fox screams. Then the wheel turns.
“The Shortest Night” from A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast. Copyright © 2021 by Dorthe Nors. English translation copyright © 2022 by Caroline Waight. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.